Never let a natural disaster go to waste. In August 2010, New York Times environmental reporter Justin Gillis reacted to that summer's heat waves and flooding with “In Weather Chaos, a Case for Global Warming” on the front page of the Times. So it was no surprise he took advantage of Hurricane Irene in Sunday’s edition, “Seeing Irene as Harbinger of a Change in Climate.”
Gillis’s latest story, admittedly written when Irene looked more dangerous than it turned out to be, was also guilty of disaster hype.
The scale of Hurricane Irene, which could cause more extensive damage along the Eastern Seaboard than any storm in decades, is reviving an old question: are hurricanes getting worse because of human-induced climate change?
The short answer from scientists is that they are still trying to figure it out. But many of them do believe that hurricanes will get more intense as the planet warms, and they see large hurricanes like Irene as a harbinger.
While the number of the most intense storms has clearly been rising since the 1970s, researchers have come to differing conclusions about whether that increase can be attributed to human activities.
Blogger A.J. Strata reminded the Times that Hurricane Isabel caused massive damage and deaths just eight years ago.
Apparently the NY Times is not aware that 8 years is not a longer time span than ‘decades’. In 2003 a little ‘ol Cat 2 hurricane (not a middling Cat 1 such as Irene) hit the “Eastern Seaboard”, rearranging the outer banks and pitching the DC area into darkness for days.
Gillis does admit the jury is still out on details, but is confident that a line can be drawn from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to more vulnerable coastlines from hurricanes.
The ocean has been getting warmer for decades, and most climate scientists say it is because greenhouse gases are trapping extra heat. Rising sea-surface temperatures are factored into both Mr. Knutson’s and Dr. Emanuel’s analyses, but they disagree on the effect that warming in remote areas of the tropics will have on Atlantic hurricanes.
Air temperatures are also rising because of greenhouse gases, scientists say. That causes land ice to melt, one of several factors leading to a rise in sea level. That increase, in turn, is making coastlines more vulnerable to damage from the storm surges that can accompany powerful hurricanes.
Overall damage from hurricanes has skyrocketed in recent decades, but most experts agree that is mainly due to excessive development along vulnerable coastlines.